Thanksgiving Preview: Breaking Down The Cowboys

In what will be the Chargers' first ever Thanksgiving game as part of the NFL, the Bolts will travel south to Dallas to take on the Cowboys. The last time the Chargers played on Thanksgiving was in 1969 when they were still in the AFL. They'll face a Cowboys team that's found themselves in free-fall since the suspension of Ezekiel Elliott. It's another instance of the Chargers catching a team at the right time, something that's happened over and over again this season. That being said, the Chargers certainly can't take them lightly. Here's what they can expect on both sides of the ball.

OFFENSE:

Needless to say, the Cowboys offense has been in disarray since Elliott left. In the two games they've played without him so far, they mustered a combined 16 points. Dak Prescott has regressed mightily, throwing for just 321 yards with zero touchdowns and three interceptions across those two games. He's also taken 12 sacks over that stretch. Prescott has never really been the dynamic passer that some made him out to be, and he's now struggling when defensive game-plans are centered around stopping him and not Elliott.

Arguably just as big as the loss of Elliott has been the loss of left tackle Tyron Smith. Smith has also missed the last two games and his absence has been a large part of the Cowboys' protection issues. During their game against the Falcons two weeks ago, Smith's replacement at left tackle gave up six sacks to Adrian Clayborn. Clayborn had two sacks the entire year entering the game.

Smith appears set to return against the Chargers, but it's unclear how healthy he'll be. He was clearly rushed back due to the offensive line's woes without him, so there's a chance he isn't 100% effective and still dealing with the groin injury that's kept him out. Either way, it's a big boost for the Cowboys and a downgrade to Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram's matchup.

The Cowboys will try and establish the run early and avoid asking Dak to do too much against the Chargers' elite pass-rush and secondary. Alfred Morris is the clear lead in the Cowboys backfield and the Chargers should see a heavy dose of him on early downs. The Chargers' run defense has been better since Denzel Perryman returned, but it's still the weak spot of the defense.

Dez Bryant has shown time and time again that he isn't the elite receiver some make him out to be. He's never been a great route-runner and neither is their number two receiver Terrance Williams, leaving Prescott with surprisingly few weapons on what once seemed like a stacked offense.

The key to beating the Cowboys will be to force them to abandon their ball control offense and force Prescott to make plays with his arm. It's a similar spot the Chargers have been in several times this season, the more the opposing quarterback is throwing the ball the better. If the Chargers can make Prescott throw it 30+ times and can generate consistent pressure, the defense should be in very good shape. After Dak seemingly took a shot at the Chargers' front seven, Bosa and Ingram should have plenty of extra motivation in front of a national audience.

DEFENSE:

Simply put, the Cowboys defense isn't very good. They struggle to stop the run and have a shaky secondary. They're allowing opposing quarterbacks to have the eighth highest passer rating of any defense in the league. Their secondary has played even worse than the numbers look, with cornerback Anthony Brown and safety Jeff Heath both playing especially bad. As such, expect to see Rivers chuck up at least a few deep-balls and try to challenge them vertically.

The Cowboys have had terrible luck, losing perhaps the three most important players on their team in Elliott, Smith, and linebacker Sean Lee, who was hurt during the game against the Falcons. Lee will miss the game against the Chargers with a hamstring injury. Lee is the heart and soul of the defense, operating as the unit's quarterback in terms of calling out the plays and getting everyone in their right assignments.

Lee has been hurt most of the year, and it's a big reason why their run defense has been as bad as it has been. The'yre giving up 4.6 yards per carry, the fifth most in the league. Melvin Gordon finally showed some life last week against the Bills, and he has a golden opportunity to continue that success. Anthony Lynn will likely try and run the ball here a lot because that is his natural inclination, but he must avoid getting too run-happy. It's very important to get an early lead on the Cowboys, so he can't be afraid to be aggressive early and let Rivers dial it up.

The Cowboys defense has been susceptible to pass-catching backs this season, so it's another great opportunity to get Austin Ekeler involved. At this point, Ekeler should be splitting carries nearly evenly with Gordon as Gordon has put nothing on film to suggest he's an above average runner. The Cowboys have been mostly solid covering tight ends this year, but it would still be nice to see Hunter Henry involved in the game-plan. The evidence is clear by now that when Henry is involved, the offense does much better overall.

The one key to beating the Cowboys defense is slowing down their pass rush, which has been the lone bright spot on an otherwise dreadful defense. They have 28 sacks this year, only two less than the Chargers, and have been able to generate fairly consistent pressure. The pass-rush is led by Demarcus Lawrence, who's been playing at an elite level while racking up 11.5 sacks so far this season. The whole Chargers O-line will have their hands full, and them struggling to protect Rivers is just about the only thing that could derail what should be a big offensive day.

THE BOTTOM LINE: 

It's another dream spot on the surface for the Chargers, but one that also poses a lot of problems. This game is essentially the Cowboys' season, and they're sure to come out with an all-out effort after getting embarrassed each of the past two weeks. Lynn and the coaching staff will have to be aggressive early and try and get out to an early lead, something the team has struggled to do all year. If they can start strong and force Prescott to throw, and if the O-line can keep Rivers upright, the Chargers should return home victorious after their first Thanksgiving game in nearly 50 years.

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